If it weren’t for Danny Lai, Julia Yang never would have known about the YouTube Symphony Orchestra.
“I found out about it through a close friend, Danny Lai.” said Yang, a Bienen junior studying cello performance. “I got intrigued, looked it up and saw a lot of cool stuff…Danny was the deciding factor.”
If it weren’t for Yang, Lai probably wouldn’t have tried out, either. “I kind of [told my friends about it] as a way to get myself to want to do it, because I didn’t want to do it by myself,” said Lai, also a Bienen junior.
YouTube announced the winning participants, including Yang and Lai, Jan. 11 on its website. The musicians will be flown to Sydney, Australia in March for a weeklong stay. The excursion entails orchestra rehearsals and culminates in a grand finale concert, which will be broadcast live on YouTube. The winners get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend master classes, where they’ll learn from top musicians in the field. They’ll perform outreach concerts for schools throughout the Sydney community, too.
“I’ve always been big on using music to try and broaden my horizons and experience new things,” Lai said.
Students from all corners of the world will gather to perform with an entirely new group of people. 33 countries are represented by the winners. Yang said she hopes the experience of building an ensemble with such a diverse group of musicians will be “eye-opening.” Unlike most professional groups, which draw upon years of experience playing together, the 2011 YouTube Orchestra will need to create an atmosphere of cooperation in just a week of rehearsals. The week will be intense, but also exhilarating, Yang said.
The two friends made it into the orchestra only after a long audition process. Musicians all over the world sent in videos of themselves playing their instruments for the first preliminary round. YouTube’s partner orchestras, including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, reviewed the videos and put about 300 of them into the final round. The public then voted on their favorite audition videos. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and composer Mason Bates made the final decision, taking into consideration the number of votes each video received.
Wearing a Northwestern hoodie, framed by a Pokémon poster and a caricature drawing of himself on horse, Lai performed the haunting melody “Harold in Italy, 1st Movement” by Hector Berlioz among several other pieces for his audition video.
In her YouTube audition video, against a backdrop of purple, Yang displayed through her facial expressions the emotions conveyed in her music. She said the most difficult part of the entire process was making the video. “It definitely took a lot of work…and a lot of practice,” Yang said.
Both Yang and Lai used Facebook as a tool to get the word out about their audition videos. Lai said when he made the final round he reached out to friends using Facebook and email, encouraging them to vote and to forward the video to their friends. He said his favorite part of the audition process was renewing old connections. “[It] got me speaking with old friends I hadn’t talked to, you know, in a while,” said Lai. “So it was nice to reconnect.”
“Honestly, I think the best part…was the whole process getting there,” said Yang. She said she was excited about the process and how incredibly supportive her friends and family were during the voting round. People talked about her video, generating buzz and spreading the word.
Yang and Lai have been preparing for this adventure nearly their whole lives. Both have loved music since they were old enough to know what it was.
Their introductions to their future shared passion were very different, though. Lai discovered the Viola in third grade when a cute girl let him play hers; “I immediately fell in love,” Lai said.
Yang comes from a music-oriented family. All of her siblings played instruments, so it was only natural she’d enjoy it, too. She began on piano when she was four years old and switched to cello at about six. It’s been part of her ever since.
High school was a sort of turning point for both Yang and Lai. They each found music was an essential part of their lives, and decided they’d be continuing with it into college. Both want to join orchestras after graduation, and make performing music their careers. Lai said music isn’t something he could let go of, and he plans to keep it with him for the rest of his life.
Music is hard. Excellence is a life-long goal to strive toward; there are always new things to discover and improve. It is at the same time frustrating, though, with all the hours of practicing, learning and repeating. Still, these are the things that keep musicians passionate about their art.
“The more I do it, the more I love it and it becomes part of me,” said Yang. Music is certainly not a static force; it’s always changing, and those devoted to it never stop developing as musicians.
Lai and Yang made a joint YouTube video briefly telling the story of how they both came to audition for the orchestra. It features a short duet between the two, and also thanks voters for their support.
“For those of you who watched our videos,” Lai says, sitting next to Yang on a sofa.
“Voted for our videos,” Yang continues.
“Forwarded our videos…”
“Danced to our videos…”
“Got drunk watching our videos…”
“Bungee jumped while watching our videos,” Yang says animatedly, provoking a smile from Lai.
“For everything and anything you could have done for us,” Lai says.
“We thank you.” Yang finishes.
They laugh, slipping over a few words near the end of a scene. The chemistry and friendship between them is obvious. “We’re kind of bad at making videos,” they proclaim in text at the end.